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Why does cathedral still honor prominent defenders of slavery?

By JOHN KELLY

Publication: The Day

Published December 15. 2013 4:00AM
Washington Post
A detail of a window in the National Cathedral honoring Robert E. Lee, featuring the Confederate battle flag.

Last week mourners gathered at Washington National Cathedral to celebrate the legacy of Nelson Mandela, a man who fought for racial equality. I'm guessing most of them arrived having no idea they were sitting in a place that has shrines to two people who fought against it.

I certainly know I was surprised when I learned recently that two memorial niches - complete with stained-glass windows and laudatory inscriptions - honor Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson.

Jackson is described as walking "humbly before his Creator, whose word was his guide." Lee is described as a "servant of God, leader of men, general-in-chief of the armies of the Confederate States whose compelling sense of duty, serene faith and unfailing courtesy mark him for all ages as a Christian soldier without fear and without reproach."

Above each inscription are stained-glass windows depicting events from the mens' lives. They even feature the Confederate flag.

Absent from the hagiography is any suggestion that the cause Lee and Jackson fought for was in any way controversial, or that the presence of the niches is inappropriate for a cathedral, especially a cathedral in the capital of the union the generals tried to destroy.

"The contradiction in terms is what attracted me to this topic," said Evie Terrono, a Randolph-Macon College art history professor who has studied the history of Civil War memorials.

A cathedral monument to Jackson and Lee was first proposed in 1931 by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, a group that had been active in putting a decidedly Southern spin on the Civil War. While it was never able to erect a "faithful slave mammies" memorial in Washington, the UDC was successful in dedicating what's known as the "faithful slave" memorial in Harpers Ferry, W.Va.

The Lee and Jackson niches were finally dedicated in 1953, long after the Civil War was over and Americans had almost stopped thinking of Lee and Jackson as Southerners.

"In many ways they were absolved of sectional politics and ensconced into the landscape of the American political experience," Terrono said.

They also became wrapped in a spiritual mantle.

"Particularly after Lee's death there emerges a kind of canonization," Terrono said. "They become saintly figures. . . . That's the context within which one has to consider these commemorative structures."

The generals are honored in the cathedral not because they were soldiers, but because they were Christian soldiers. (This perhaps illustrates the limits of Christianity - or, I suppose, of any religion.)

The irony is that despite holding the remains of one of the country's most racist presidents - Woodrow Wilson - the cathedral was at the forefront of the civil rights movement in the 1960s. Clergy members supported integration. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered a sermon at the cathedral just four days before his death.

And yet, there are the odes to Jackson and Lee, slave owners whose cause included keeping blacks in chains.

"To have them enshrined in this national place of reflection can be really disconcerting," said Chris Mackowski, a St. Bonaventure University journalism professor and author who has written about the niches on the Emerging Civil War blog.

"It's easy for people to pass judgment on history," Mackowski said. "I don't think that's particularly constructive. I don't think it's fair to the people back then, and I don't think it's useful to us now."

Rather, Mackowski said, the niches should force us to ask: What was the context in which they were created? How is that different from today?

Cathedral spokesman Richard Weinberg said he's not aware of any criticism of the niches. He said: "In its iconography, the cathedral depicts not only religious history - the story of Christianity - but also tells the story of American history. The Civil War is part of American history. American history includes good and bad things."

Weinberg pointed out that not too far away from Lee and Jackson is a bay dedicated to Abraham Lincoln.

Of course, Lincoln was on the right side, the winning side.

I don't think the stained-glass windows should be pried from their frames, but I'm not comfortable with the unquestioning context in which they're presented. How about adding some sort of sign that explains the windows' history and that acknowledges the overwhelming oddness of treating these two flawed men like saints?

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington" for the Washington Post, a daily look at Washington's less-famous side.

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